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Greece to accept test flights from UK next month, says minister

Greece will begin accepting test-run flights from the UK next month, the country’s tourism minister has revealed.

Haris Theoharis said that while Athens’ ambition remained to open up to holidaymakers from 14 May, border controls would also be relaxed in April when “some” airports were allowed to receive traffic from abroad.

“When I mentioned the May start date, I said we will gradually lift restrictions in an effort to test the temperature,” Theoharis told the Guardian, adding that because tourism was not “an on-off switch” preparatory moves had to be made.

“From sometime in mid-April we should be able to accept UK citizens, and those from other highly vaccinated countries, to test the new rules at a few entry points, not all 20 airports, but the ones most commonly used, such as Corfu, Heraklion in Crete, Athens and Thessaloniki.”

Theoharis announced the decision a day after the UK government unveiled a list of exemptions enabling people to leave the country if they had “reasonable excuses to travel”. The new restrictions come into effect on 29 March.

Thousands of Britons own second homes in Crete and Corfu. Like Boris Johnson’s father Stanley – whose villa overlooking the Aegean brings in more than £40,000 a year in rental income – many rent out their properties over the summer.

Tourist-dependent Greece is desperate to kick off what is regarded as the nation’s heavy industry. Tourism accounts for more than 20% of GDP and one in five Greeks is employed in the sector. Battered by the pandemic last year, with arrivals at only about 25% of the 31.3 million tourists who visited prior to the virus, authorities want at least double that number this year.

The centre-right government of the prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has championed the idea of an EU-wide “vaccination certification” to unlock travel. It has also pursued separate travel arrangements with countries outside the bloc.

Last month, Anglo-Greek teams initiated talks on facilitating a travel corridor between the two nations with a commonly agreed digital pass.

“The UK is our No 2 source market and so it’s very important for us,” Theoharis said, praising Britain’s accelerated vaccination drive.

“The technical talks are moving forward. All we need is to exchange information as to how to verify the validity of those documents and there seems to be willingness on the other side.”

Restarting tourism would send a signal that the world was able to return to some semblance of normality, he said.

On Tuesday, EU citizens who could prove they had been vaccinated, or had tested negative for the coronavirus, were able to fly into Greece without having to self-isolate. Under a deal struck between Athens and Jerusalem, Israelis in possession of a “green pass” also began travelling to the country.

Asked about British government officials warning against the risks involved in travel abroad, Theoharis said it was important to remember that the “numbers of deaths and people being admitted into ICU wards was decreasing despite the increase in transmissions of Covid-19.

“Our scientists tell me with the vaccination programmes moving forward both in Greece and the UK, the weather helping as it did last year, and with all the restrictions in place limiting spread of the disease, things will be much better by mid-May,” he said.

“Of course we will follow developments, we are not impervious to that but we have to plan and we have to prepare ourselves … It’s a bit like being a DJ. You have to mix the two songs as you switch from one song, or in this case, one reality to another … we cannot start discussing about how to restart the economy after everything is under control.”

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